Campus might be a ghost town, but University of Wyoming students head to the virtual polls this week to elect next year’s ASUW president, vice president, and student senators.
The online student government election kicked off Monday, and will remain open until Wednesday afternoon. It’s taking place against the backdrop of COVID-19 — when only a few UW students remain on campus, and while most of the student body continues completing coursework via recorded lectures and class meetings via Zoom.
ASUW’s current president, Jason Wilkins, said the elections are always offered online, but in-person polling stations and outreach on campus generally help to boost participation.
“I am hopeful that turnout will be decent, especially since we all have to use technology for classes,” Wilkins said. “But we’ll see — since people didn’t get as exposed to the elections as they normally would.”
He added the last couple of years had seen about 10% of the student body taking part in ASUW elections. But there’s no telling how many will vote this year.
As with many aspects of what was considered ‘normal life’ before the pandemic, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the works. The student government is no exception.
“We still have been meeting weekly for Senate on Zoom, and committees meet regularly online as well,” Wilkins said. “Our main focus is getting ready for the transition when the new president and vice president come in, as they will be dealing with the ‘new normal.’”
The election also comes at a time when ASUW is more visible in the lives of students than usual.
ASUW oversees student club funding, and its president represents students as an ex-officio member on the university’s Board of Trustees. But it’s largest responsibility is managing the budget it receives from student fees — roughly $1.3 million.
Following UW’s spring break, the university announced that campus would close to the public and classes would continue exclusively online. ASUW committed some of its budget to a fund for struggling students. That meant international students unable to travel, student employees unable to work, or any other student faced with financial hardship because of the pandemic.
ASUW didn’t ask too many questions, Wilkins said, focusing instead on getting payments out to students as quickly as possible.
“In times like this, I think there’s no better way we could really be helpful,” he said at the time. “And really, we just want to do whatever we can to help students, because we recognize it’s kind of a time of limbo for a lot of people and not everyone can afford to just sit around and wait for other answers.”
Assistance payments were capped at $300 and distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. ASUW originally set aside $75,000 for that purpose, which was quickly exhausted. As UW canceled events and programs, more funding opened up, and Wilkins said ASUW eventually awarded about $163,000 to some 559 students.
UW student politicians do not officially organize themselves by party, but candidates — especially presidential tickets — seek and sometimes win endorsements from campus departments, recognized student organizations and other student senators or candidates.
“Endorsements are pretty typical,” Wilkins said. “I’ve seen a few endorsements around social media from some RSOs, which is cool because they are more informed and involved with the process, too.”
One endorsement this year came from the university’s Multicultural Affairs office, which threw its support behind Riley Talamantes and Courtney Titus for president and vice president.
“We were just impressed by their long-standing commitment to serving marginalized students and to practices around sustainability,” said Tawsha Mitchell, senior project coordinator for Multicultural Affairs. “All of the most recent ASUW legislation written to support marginalized students, to support sustainability efforts on campus — they’ve been involved with, either by offering that legislation or sponsoring it.”
Multicultural Affairs is not the only campus division to have offered endorsements during ASUW elections. Nor were Talamantes and Titus the only ticket who came looking for an endorsement. The office was approached by two presidential teams seeking support before deciding on Talamantes/Titus.
“It has always been within ASUW policy for academic and student affairs departments to endorse candidates,” Mitchell said. “But many offices make the choice to remain neutral during elections — I think for a lot of good reasons.”
Those reasons might include a department having a conflict of interest — perhaps a student employee among the candidates. But for Multicultural Affairs, Mitchell said, endorsing a ticket sits comfortably with the office’s mission of leadership, engagement and community service.
“I think it’s really important to encourage discourse and to show up with our values and model that for students,” she said. “So, we were really committed to endorsing a ticket well before the election. It was just a matter of ‘Who did we want to endorse?’”
There are six presidential tickets and numerous representatives running for individual colleges — such as the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Engineering and Applied Science. ASUW uses instant runoff voting — in which voters rank their chosen candidates — and allows for write-in campaigns. Students can vote at uwyo.edu/asuw/elections.